To Southern Illinois anglers, Christmas trees are the gift that keep giving.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is continuing its long-standing program of turning discarded Christmas trees into fish habitat. Luke Nelson, District 22 Fisheries Biologist, said the IDNR is collecting trees in the lot next to the old IDNR office on Route 148, just south of the intersection with Old Route 13.
He said retired biologist Chris Bickers started the program nearly 30 years ago. Each year a couple hundred Southern Illinois residents drop off the discarded trees. The trees are fashioned into habitat structures and placed in Crab Orchard, Little Grassy, Mermet and Ferne Clyffe lakes.
“We get a lot,” Nelson said. “We don’t actually count. All of the stuff on the refuge is cedar Trees we cut, I’d say there are close to 800-1,000 put in. I have a map with GPS coordinates, where we put them in. There are several hundred Christmas trees donated."
The Christmas tree structures will be placed in Crab Orchard Feb. 23. Trees will be collected until that time.
Nelson and several volunteers build the structures a day or two prior to placing them in the various lakes. They lash two or three trees to cinder blocks with electric fence wire.
“We use a pontoon boat, carry them out and push them off in locations with good depth profiles where fish can use them throughout the year,” Nelson said. “They’re on points, or any strategic place.
“We have them on dams or if there is public fishing access. We try to optimize usage. We want them on a nice drop where the fish won’t just use them one time of the year. If it is on a spot that goes from 6-10 feet rather quickly, crappie will use them most of the year.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires natural materials to be used in fish habitat projects. Nelson said artificial materials last longer — the trees deteriorate over a span of about four years — but there are also decided advantages to using natural materials.
“It basically creates a little ecosystem,” Nelson said. “Everything comes in which starts breaking things down. It attracts all kinds of fish and all kinds of organisms. That would be a benefit as opposed to the plastic ones. These Christmas tree attractors, it happens pretty fast.”
It may take a week or so for plastic structures to attract fish. With the trees, it’s just a matter of a day or two.
"They’ll have fish on them quickly,” Nelson said. “Once they start breaking down in the spring, they’ll really have things around them. Fish gravitate to them quickly.”
There are about 60 existing structures in Crab Orchard. New trees are added on a rotating basis as the trees break down. Maps are available showing the location of the structures and GPS coordinates are noted on the maps.
The structures are relatively large and easy to find, particularly if anglers have GPS.
“Last year we were putting 4-6 in one spot,” Nelson said. “We have a great big pile of material and we try to spread it out evenly. We’re probably covering an area 10 by 10-feet or 12 by 12. If they have a side scan or a down scan it’s really obvious. Even the GPS. If you follow my coordinates, you’ll find them real easily.”
Anglers can obtain maps by emailing Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.